Did they really break out? A look at line drive rates

Sort FanGraphs’ 2013 hitting statistics by line drive percentage (LD%) and you’ll see an eclectic, albeit very talented, group of hitters. Weirdly enough, Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney tops the list, and the increasingly mystical (perhaps mythical) Chris Johnson of the Atlanta Braves rounds out the top three. Two other names in there are of particular interest to me: the St. Louis Cardinals’ Allen Craig and Johnson’s teammate Freddie Freeman.

One could argue both were poised to break out this year. Craig, in a span of 119 games last year, notched 22 home runs and 92 RBI with a .307 batting average. That’s incredible. It’s hard to fathom would he could do in 162 games.

Well, you’re seeing it, folks: he’s on pace for 16 home runs, 17 tops. He’s hitting .321 (his BAbip is inflated, so treat his average as the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself) and will easily crack 100 RBI barring injury. But where’s the power? He’s already a top-30 player overall, but he potentially be top-15 material.

Bringing it full circle to the line drive rate. It’s 27 percent this year, up from 22.7 percent last year, which had been the highest of his career (Craig debuted in 2010). Elsewhere, his HR/FB rate is 11 percent, down from 17.1 percent last year, aka about two-thirds as many of Craig’s fly balls are turning into home runs as last year. (His career HR/FB rate before this year was above 15 percent.)

The verdict: gap power for days. And I don’t think that’s a permanent change. This year will be the anomaly, not the norm.

Normalizing Craig’s line drive rate to his career mark would net him about 14 fewer line drives. One can argue some of those would be ground balls, but given the nature of a line drive (as in, it’s elevated), I think it’s safe to assume they turn into balls in play characterized as fly balls. So, with 114 fly balls instead of 100 (quick note: 11% HR/FB * 100 FB = 11 HR), let’s normalize his HR/FB rate to something closer to his career norm — it’s about 15 percent now, which is modest, but let’s do it anyway. 15% HR/FB * 114 FB = 17 HR.

SEVENTEEN HOME RUNS. That’s a huge difference. With the season about 70 percent complete, Craig would be on pace for 24 or 25 home runs rather than 16 or 17. And that is the type of hitter I think Allen Craig is.

Sprinkle in a .300 batting average (it’s totally real) and a filthy Cardinals lineup and I think you’re looking at a top-20 overall fantasy contributor, not just top-30. It may not seem like much, but that’s second-round production from a third-round player in a head-to-head snake-style draft or $5 in extra value in a rotisserie auction. And if there’s value to be extracted, by the beard of Zeus I’ll do it.

Freddie, on the other hand, is a bit different. after an impressive rookie campaign — he was in the mix for Rookie of the Year honors but lost out to teammate Craig Kimbrel — has had two weird years since. His batting average tanked to .259 in 2012 only to vault way up to .311 this year. Contrarily, he is on pace to fall short of 20 home runs for the first time in his career during arguably his best hitting year.

So is it? Is it Freddie’s break-out year — batting .311, but on pace to hit his fewest home runs in any season — or will next year be his break-out year? (Sheesh, we have such strict criteria for “break outs”.)

Owners who think this is the type of hitter Freddie is are, I think, sorely mistaken. He’s not a .300 hitter — his BAbip is through the roof this year (his 2011 batting average and BAbip are much more indicative of the type of hitter he will likely be as far as batting average is concerned). And, although he has somewhat disappointed this year, he will certainly hit for power. His LD% and HR/FB rate have fluctuated similarly to Craig’s (they’re the highest and lowest, respectively, of Freddie’s career), although not as severely.

Ultimately, Freddie will probably hit in the neighborhood of 18 home runs this year, which isn’t that many fewer than last year’s total. But I think as Freddie develops as a hitter (and physically as a human being), he will start to elevate those line drives and turn his gap power into 30-homer power. Entering his age-24 year next season, I wouldn’t bet against it. As former manager Bobby Cox once (allegedly) said when Freddie first took batting practice with the Braves, “That’s one of the sweetest left-handed swings I’ve ever seen.”

I’ll bring it back in early 2014, but count on it: Craig and Freddie have true break-out seasons in 2014.

(Note: I called Freddie “Freddie” throughout this post instead of “Freeman.” That’s because I played ball with Freddie — we went to high school together — and it’s weird to call him anything else. Yes, this was a shameless brag. Carry on.)

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